In our everyday lives there is rarely much time to spare for this kind of prayer: the COVID19 crisis gives us the opportunity to find our Tent and meet God there
The American friar Chrys McVey, who died suddenly in 2009, was a much-loved, joyful Dominican whose big laugh and warm manner many of us remember with special affection. A gifted preacher, he was expert at what is often called ‘thinking outside the box’, and in a collection of his writings published as Dialogue as Mission, there is a striking example of this, in an essay entitled “Outside the camp”. The reference is to the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 33, verse 7: “Anyone who wanted to consult Yahweh would go out to the Tent of the Meeting, outside the camp”, and Br Chrys writes that “’Outside the camp’ is where we meet God”. He was thinking especially of his own long experience of mission in a non-Christian country, Pakistan; but there is a special sense in which this observation is true of the whole worldwide community of believers in this period, when in many countries we are unable to leave our homes. And that means that we cannot go to church, whether for Mass, or for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or for the Liturgy of the Hours, or for Adoration or private prayer. Reaction varies, and there are those who feel that they are being kept away from God.
Ordinarily we may talk about our local church – the physical building, the place where we go to Mass on Sunday – as “the house of God”, rather as if it were his address, his home, the place where he lives. If we say “John’s house” or “Claire’s house” that is exactly what we mean; and by extension God’s house is thought of as the modern realisation of the Tent, and the secular world – our homes, shops, restaurants, cinemas and so forth, all those contexts in which we are engaged for the most part in non-spiritual activities – as the camp. But the present crisis is forcing us to abandon many of those non-spiritual activities, and perhaps it is an opportunity to explore a different interpretation of Deuteronomy: to find the Tent precisely in our enforced absence from the very places we would ordinarily consider to represent the camp.
Even in countries that are still nominally, if marginally, Christian, many small rural communities no longer have a parish priest on hand for daily Mass, or even for the Sunday Eucharist: this is the case even in the northern Italian diocese where I live. In cities, towns and villages that have been forced by the current situation to close the church doors, there are those who struggle to understand that they are not ‘being kept away from God’. So what if we were to turn the traditional interpretation of the Tent-camp dichotomy upside down? What if we were to say that our parishes, our Rosary groups, our Fraternities, our familiar gatherings in and around the edifice we have always thought of as “where God lives” – what if we were to say that this, this building, is the camp, and that if in order to meet God we have to go outside the camp, logically that means that the Tent is elsewhere? To invert our habitual thinking in this way is disconcerting at first, but it can be liberating. ‘Outside the camp’ is where we meet God, said Chrys. Outside the security of habit, of routine, of convention, we need to find, indeed to build our personal Tent where we can meet God.
In his most recent book Alive in God, Timothy Radcliffe reminds us that “Still today in what is euphemistically called ‘the developing world’ sickness and marginalization are profoundly linked”, and that “a first step is to be present to those who are sick”. This is not only a matter of visiting them or indeed physically caring for them, as so many healthcare workers are unselfishly doing every day; there are other ways of being present. One, obviously, is prayer, which is no less powerful when it is offered from our private homes than when it is part of ecclesiastic ritual. Words, in this case, are optional: it is enough to light a candle and just sit in silence with the image of the sufferers in our minds. In our everyday lives there is rarely much time to spare for this kind of prayer: the COVID19 crisis gives us the opportunity to find our Tent and meet God there. When Meister Eckhart taught ‘detachment’, he explained that this is far more than cultivating indifference to our material or emotional wellbeing. It is more like the drastic but necessary pruning of a plant – a question of cutting off all that inhibits growth, of emptying ourselves. If we do, God himself will fill the empty space. It is not only Nature that abhors a vacuum!
In the classic film The African Queen, the character of Rose, played by Katharine Hepburn, has a wonderfully memorable line: “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above”. All unwittingly, Rose offers us a key to living our faith in a time of lockdown. ‘Nature’, for most of us, means treating the church rather as we treat so many of the physical structures on which we base our lives: as a building that is unfailingly, ceaselessly available for our use. What can we do? Rise above it! God is not in lockdown; he, and he alone, is able even in this time of crisis to go anywhere and everywhere. Let us go outside the camp, for it is there that we can meet God.
Ruth Anne Henderson
 Prakash Anthony Lohale, OP and Kevin Toomey OP (eds.), Dialogue as Mission: remembering Chrys McVey, Dominican Province of St Albert the Great (USA), 2014.
 Ibid., , p.73
 Timothy Radcliffe, Alive in God, Bloomsbury Continuum (London), page 67.
 Ibid., page 71